Unemployment Extension: 'What Are They Waiting On?'

12/08/2011 05:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

Kim Bullock of Las Vegas, Nev., said she lost her job with a telecom company almost exactly one year ago after her employer went bankrupt. Now she's worried her unemployment insurance will run out before she finds a new job.

Bullock said her yearlong search for work has resulted in several interviews, but no offers. "It's just crazy because it seems like you have to put in 50 or 60 resumes just to get one callback, and then you're competing with hundreds of other applicants," Bullock said.

She's one of 6 million whose federal unemployment compensation would be cut short next year if Congress doesn't reauthorize the benefits. And Bullock is one of several dozen jobless who've written HuffPost in the past week to say they are anxiously watching lawmakers for signs of a deal.

Unfortunately for those people, instead of an agreement, on Thursday it seemed Congress was headed for a holiday showdown. While Democrats want a renewal of the benefits without strings attached, House Republicans are crafting a proposal that will reauthorize federal benefits programs and simultaneously slash benefits. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees jobless benefits, sharply criticized the nascent proposal.

"While we don't have all the details, in this case the devil is made plain in the general outlines of the Republican proposal," Levin said in a statement. "The plan Republicans presented this morning would slash federal unemployment insurance by more than half, cutting by 40 weeks Americans' eligibility for assistance -- even as we continue to emerge from the worst recession in 80 years. Also very concerning are indications that Republicans may propose undermining access to regular state unemployment benefits in the future."

Spokesmen for key Republicans in the House declined to provide details to HuffPost, but CNN reported the benefits would be part of a package that includes both a continuation of a payroll tax cut that has provided an average of $1,000 for every working American this year and a so-called "doc fix" to prevent a 27 percent pay cut to doctors who treat Medicare patients. The measure would be paid for with a federal salary freeze, and it would also speed construction of the Keyston XL pipeline -- provisions Democrats oppose.

The GOP's plan would shorten the maximum duration workers can receive federal unemployment benefits from 73 weeks to 33 weeks, CNN reported. Federal jobless benefits kick in for people who don't find work before running out of state aid, which typically lasts 26 weeks. Part of that reduction presumably would come from allowing the federal "Extended Benefits" program -- which supplies the final 20 weeks of aid for workers in states with high unemployment rates -- to phase out in 2012, which will happen anyway unless Congress proactively changes federal law to allow states to remain eligible. The Republican plan could achieve further reductions by incorporating legislation passed by a House committee earlier this year that would allow states to redirect federal jobless funds from benefits to paying down state debt to the federal government.

Also, according to reports, the GOP bill would allow states to drug test the jobless. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) introduced standalone legislation to do just that, though evidence of a drug epidemic among the jobless is hard to find.

Most jobless would be eligible for more weeks of benefits under the GOP proposal than with no bill at all, though it was unclear how the new scheme would treat workers who've already used up a portion of their federal compensation.

Kim Bullock said she's received $398 per week since she lost her billing job with the telecom company last December. She said she's got four kids whose ages range from five to 16, and that if she can't find work before running out of unemployment, another family member will have to absorb her household. She worries she'd have to transfer her kids to a new school system. Already, she said, she's holding back on even a small amount of Christmas shopping because of the uncertainty.

"If I lose my unemployment there’s no way I’ll be able to make it," she said. "What are they waiting on? Why do we have to wait in distress?"